An interview with Inpro/Seal founder David Orlowski

By Plant Engineering Staff September 11, 2006

Interview with David C. Orlowski of Inpro/Seal Company Inc .


David C. Orlowski is considered to be the “father” of bearing isolation technology.In 1977, he received patent protection (#4,022,479) for the original Bearing Isolator. (He also invented the term “Bearing Isolator” in the process.)In addition, he holds more than 40 other isolator related patents, some of which go out until 2018 and longer

CEO and founder of Inpro/Seal Company, Orlowski has spent the last 41 years working on ways to enhance and extend the service life of rotating equipment.He is well known for his knowledge of bearings, bearing protection and tribology.


Was the Bearing Isolator business your first business?
No, we were originally in the pump distribution business. In addition to selling the pumps, we repaired them on site and in our shop.

Originally you were a pump distributor?
Yes.Before that I also spent a few years with Worthington Pump and Machinery Corporation as a direct employee. Then that evolved into a distributorship.

Is that business still in existence?
No it isn’t.Though successful, we closed this operation to focus our efforts on Bearing Isolators full time.

The Bearing Isolator, what is it?
We invented the Bearing Isolator because we recognized a need for something better than rubber lip seals in pumps.We couldn’t call our new device a seal because people at that point would get it confused with a mechanical face seal that was used on the liquid end of pumps. We avoided the name “seal” and called it a Bearing Isolator. The word itself was not in existence at that point and time. We started using the designation “Bearing Isolator” and people would think it was an insulator. It was quite an education program going on just about the name. We tried to get the name “Bearing Isolator” trademarked but the patent and trademark office (PTO) said it was too descriptive so therefore could not be trademarked.

If one would go to the patent office right now, how many patents would your name be on?
Approximately 40 US and of course most of patents are foreign protected.

Is it under bearing protection at the patent office?
I really don’t know, probably generically it would be under labyrinth seal. We would go beyond that and call it a compound labyrinth seal.

What caused you to come up with this product?
I was working as a Pump Distributor and Pump Repair Facility. We were called out by the manufacturer, Worthington Corporation to repair some of the HVAC pumps in the Sears Tower in Chicago. This was in 1975 and it was in February, you wouldn’t think they would have trouble with the air conditioning but they did. It was on the south side of the Sears Tower.Those areas on the south side of the building were supposed to be cooled because of the daytime sun load. As it turns out one of the chilled water pumps failed and there went their cooling system. One of the local radio personalities working in the Chicago area, a guy by the name of Wally Phillips picked up on the falling windows problem that they were having at Sears Tower and that it had to be fixed so that the building could be occupied. The conditions were so that we had to go up to the 22ndfloor where all the equipment was. The pumps that were installed were API refinery type. It was a Worthington model HN.

Were you there personally working on the pumps?
Yes I was. The pumps were installed for cost reasons, competitive reasons, with rubber lip seals. They were refinery pumps with rubber lip seals, which is a rarity. It shouldn’t have been done, but it was. One of the single spring mechanical seals started to spray water and of course the water was coming out of the seal and going right through and under the lip seal, which was worn. It went through there and into the bearing housing, causing bearing failure and a catastrophic wreck. We were told directly by the Worthington Corporation to take the pumps apart, bring them down the freight elevator, put them into our pick up truck and proceed to install a new type of seal in the bearing frames of the pumps. There were 16 of them. So we repaired and reinstalled all 16 of these. We retrofitted and replaced the rubber lip seals with what was commonly supplied with these pumps, with labyrinth seal. It is a very simple API labyrinth. It was made in two pieces, a rotor and stator. The stator was positioned toward the oil lubricant in the pump and the rotor was installed toward the water spray contamination. That set-up seemed to work well at the Sears.

What did you do next?
We decided to take that device and technology and apply it to process pumps. We first thought that it was a new breakthrough that kept the oil in the housing without contact or wear. We then learned that it was not much of a breakthrough because it had been done for thirty or more years in refineries and petrochemical plants. After all of that, we felt that we had something to bring to our customers as an upgrade to the rubber lip seal for ordinary process pumps. But the Corn Processing Industry has a very distinct need to keep their equipment clean because the carbohydrates and mash would accumulate around the pump and would set up over night.The solution was to blast it with a fire hose on a daily basis. The fire hose-down was something that we thought we would be able to withstand with the new labyrinth seal.

Is that what they call a wash-down?
It was more violent than a wash-down. A wash-down is usually a small stream of water at high pressure. This was high pressure with a large stream of water. We tested our new device for water contamination and hit it with a garden hose. The bearing housing filled up with water, very similar to the Titanic. It took about six months to design something that would work in severe hose-down conditions. We finally found a combination of rotor and stator that would keep oil in but also ward off contamination up to and including a fire hose. Now we really had an upgrade. It would perform much better than any other labyrinth seals made by pump manufactures because it would hold off any contamination without contact.

We first installed this device in 1975 at the Grain Processing Corporation plant in Muscatine, Iowa, which still remains to my knowledge, the largest potable ethanol alcohol producer in the world. It was installed in a very critical situation. It worked and it worked well. Now we knew we had something to market.

Are those Bearing Isolators still in operation today?
They very well could be. Grain Processing now has in the area of 3000 pumps and some of the original Bearing Isolators are still operating to my knowledge. Now we had a device that was so good, non-wear, non-contacting, that it was very much an upgrade to anything that was done before.

As a sidenote, in late 2005, Grain Processing returned some very corroded Bearing Isolators to us.I believe they were among the first, if not the very first, Bearing Isolators we ever manufactured back in 1977.The reason for the return was for upgrading to the VBX X — D, our latest design.They were still operating when removed.Moreover, had they not been removed, who knows how long they may have run — maybe forever!

Why did they upgrade?Is there anything wrong with the original design?
Absolutely nothing.It is part of a reliability program they have where GPC ensures all of their Bearing Isolators are current and up-to-date.

How did the pump manufacturers get involved?
With my background being in pumps and pump design, we went to the Pump Manufacturing Industry. I visited every manufacturer of industrial process pumps that I knew of.My Bearing Isolators were considered too expensive to upgrade from a $2 lip seal to a $40 or $50 Bearing Isolator.

How about the Worthington company that you had connections with?
The Worthington Company fell in line with the rest of the manufactures thinking we don’t need this. This is not something that our customers are calling for. Obviously their customers didn’t know what a Bearing Isolator was.They weren’t specifying it because they didn’t know what it was or how it would improve their rotating equipment reliability.

Why did you rename it an Inpro/Seal?
We named it the Inpro/Seal to be simple. The name Inpro is a contraction of Industrial and Process. We had to be industrial and we had to be process in order to get the biggest bang out of rotating equipment reliability. Obviously we weren’t heading toward protecting the bearings on automobiles, swimming pool pumps or anything like that. We were working toward the reliability of industrial process pumps. At that point we approached the process pump users and introduced the idea of upgrading their pumping equipment.

How did you overcome initial objections?
We knew that we couldn’t compete on price against rubber lip seals in the pumps. The consumers had to be educated to the extent that they knew what the product was and what it would do for them. We were competing against a $2.00 lip seal. The customer in chemical processing plant would tell us over and over that for $40.00 he could buy 20 lip seals, now what do you have? One manufacture of lip seals had published articles stating that their lip seal would go out to as much as 3000 hours of operation before it would become ineffective. Of course there are 8760 hours in a year, and 3000 hours took you to the first of May. That was an extremely steep and difficult learning curve for the consumers to accept the technology that we were offering.

As a manufacturer, are you addressing a maintenance person at a process plant?
Not always, sometimes the Chief Engineer. I remember one incident, in the Louviers building at Dupont. The person that I was interviewing told me that he never had any trouble with lip seals and some of them last up to thirty years and that he didn’t need a $40.00 replacement for a $2.00 lip seal. I almost killed the project, because if Dupont is not having problems with lip seals possibly no one was. It took a little bit of studying when I got back to Rock Island. I found out that the local plant of Dupont, in Clinton IA, was buying some $250,000 worth of bearings every year for rotating process equipment. The bearings were inexpensive at that point. $12.00 would get you a bearing that you could place in an ANSI pump but it is about a 10 to 1 ratio of the cost of the bearing and the cost of downtime, labor and disruption of process. Dupont in Clinton, IA was spending over 2

Was your product patented at the time?
During this time of development and research, we went for a patent and our first patent was granted in May of 1977. The patent number is 4,022,479. It was the first patent on anything, which would approach what we now call the Bearing Isolator. We had a patented device with a solution but nobody had a problem and it was very frustrating in the early days. However we could go out to industrial process plants, such as the corn industry and sell two at a time because the guy would really like to try these out. So he would try them out and they worked and didn’t wear. There lies the problem. We had a device that was so good and such long a life that once you retrofitted or an OEM manufacture would supply this device, being non-wearing and non-friction that was the end of the line for us in that we could not ever depend on replacing in kind. In theory, after we get all the bearing retrofitted or fitted with Bearing Isolators, we would theoretically be out of business. However at this point, to this date it looks like it might take 12,000 years to retrofit every bearing, and that will be well past my retirement age.

Does the end user today vs. the end user of 20 years ago; does he still have choices on sealing his pump? Is the lip seal still out there ?
Yes the lip seal, and the misconceptions that carry, are still out there. There are many manufactures of lip seals in this country and others that we feel that even to this day we don’t have more than 1% of the total available potential market.

What else does the end user have available to them, anything else?
There are other pretenders to the Bearing Isolator business. Most of them are made of plastic. Ours are generally made of metal that is bronze. 98% of the Bearing Isolators that we produce to this date are made of bronze and the other 2% are made of other metals, such as stainless steel and titanium and other exotic metals and a very small percentage are made of a Teflon compound.

What to you mean by lip seal misconceptions?
Lets take oil mist as an example.When oil mist was first put into use, venting into the environment was not an issue and stray mist was not a problem.Since then, there have been dramatic changes in environmental, equipment and repair needs as this stray mist now needs to be contained.This is where the misconception starts.

For whatever reason people think that contact seals are their only option to contain oil mist.The problem is that contact seals wear out and have an unknown and unpredictable service life.With a 100% failure rate, end users have to contend with catastrophic failure and shutdown, let alone oil mist leakage.

In a typical oil mist application, atomized lubricant is injected into the bearing housing.Without a proper sealing method, it will escape through the shaft ends and exit into the environment, causing housekeeping, safety and other issues.With our oil mist Bearing Isolator, the lubricant is coalesced to a liquid and drains back into a system sump or reservoir instead of into the environment. Bearings are protected, shafts are sealed and environmental housekeeping problems are solved.

Bearing Isolators, on the other hand are non-contacting and do not wear out.Their simple construction consists of a rotor and stator, unitized so that they don’t separate from one another while in use.These components interact to keep contamination out of the bearing enclosure and the oil mist under control.Plus, because they operate with out contact, they save energy and are made of non-sparking, non-volatile bronze material.

Do these same misconceptions apply to other applications?
Sure they do.Except for sparking, any plant that uses contact seals has the same issues.Seventy years ago, when rubber lip seals were introduced, they were the only kind of sealing device available. Convenient and inexpensive, they went on to capture a 99% market share”.

Today, lip seal manufacturers state that at best, they have an average life cycle of 1,844 hours or 77 days of operation, though some may survive up to 3,000 hours.Simply put, with a 100% failure rate, in the real world, lip seals are not meant for heavy duty, industrial applications where rotating equipment is designed by the OEMs to run, uninterrupted for five years.Our brochure, “Are Lip Seals Obsolete?” provides much more on this subject.

How do you deal with these misconceptions?
Over the last couple of years, we had extensive research conducted into the use of bearing protection on a market-by-market, application-by-application basis.The results of this research showed us that people wanted to know more about Bearing Isolators.

From this, we adopted an “educate and inform” marketing approach in an effort to teach plant people about the features, advantages and benefits of bearing protection.Our brochure, Introduction To Bearing Isolators…… A Short Lesson In Bearing Isolation, now in it’s third printing, it has become the most successful literature we have ever developed.

We knew that once end users found out that Bearing Isolators never wear out and provide levels of protection unavailable in any kind of bearing protection device with bottom line implications, they would become a convert.Not only did they get fed up with 70 year old technology, they went on to prefer the Inpro/Seal brand by an 80% margin.

In the early days, you didn’t have the computerization that you now have in manufacturing, what did you do?
We made them all by hand on manual engine lathes. Sometimes as many as twenty a week all made by hand. I would make a trip out, sell some, come back, draw them up and the machinist would turn them out one by one by hand.

How many employees did you have then?

How many do you have today?
82 talented people that are specially trained in tribological and lubrication techniques and have the necessary process know how. Our guideline to promote from within helps us cultivate and retain these resources and allows our customers to deal with people that know our company, our products and the way our products are used.

What happened in the next twenty years, something good happened, who was it, everybody?
Pretty much everyone in the industrial process industry were looking for more reliable rotating equipment to replace some of the knowledgeable people that have gone and have been retired or not there due to attrition and other things. As a cost cutting move, the equipment is necessarily more reliable and enough people are on that track today so that we turn out more than 400,000 of these Bearing Isolators every year.

You just recently finished a new building?
We completed a multi-million dollar expansion in 2003 when we tripled our size in anticipation of stronger Bearing Isolator usage. Because Bearing Isolators are all we make, it is important to keep investing in the future. We now have the world’s largest facility devoted entirely to bearing isolation technology.Our 84,000 feet of manufacturing space includes:R & D, manufacturing, research lab, testing, engineering, shipping and support. This includes the latest in precision computer controlled (CNC) lathes, metal turning lathes, milling machines and sophisticated testing equipment.With 58,000 program designs, our engineering department maintains the largest data bank of its kind in the industry.

Why so many designs?
That provides the basis for us to provide same day shipments of anything that the customer may require.

When did the OEMs start to cooperate?
They started to cooperate soon after the users, that is the industrial process plants, would require them to ship products with Bearing Isolators already installed. This completely changed the pump and also the electric motor manufacturing attitudes, because they are responding to the customers need.

What do you mean by changes and attitudes?If you look at an electric motor that was produced without Bearing Isolators, the only thing that holds back contamination of the pretty much exposed bearing is a rubber washer, (sometimes made out of bronze).But most of the time it is a rubber grommet that rotates with the shaft and holds out some of the larger contamination, such as sand and broken beer bottles. Really, it is very ineffective in protecting those motor bearings. Some people say the root cause of up to 80% of motor failure is bearing failure. There are about 40 million three phase industrial motors just in the United States operating today. They last about 5.7 years, meantime between failure where they would have to be repaired or replaced. That would bring some 7,000,000 motors into play every year, which would require some 14,000,000 Bearing Isolators. That is a humongous available market potential for us for repair and replacement of motors. We can go on the new motors as manufactured or we can retrofit at EASA motor repair shops around the country.

How did that evolve, going from pumps to motors?
Any kind of rotating equipment can be retrofitted with Bearing Isolators and replace other bearing protection devices, most of which are rubber lip seals or rubber grommets in electric motors.

Can you use this on a machine tool spindle?
You can use this on machine tool spindles, gearboxes, steam turbines, paper machines, and steel mill rolls, anything that rotates. Anything that is in the industrial environment that rotates on bearings. Those bearings must be adequately protected.

Our VBXX-MT™ Series Bearing Isolators were developed to safeguard machine tool spindles, this product provides protection coolant, chips, humidity and heat, that can cause malfunction and expensive, unscheduled downtime. The highest performance is assured with a reverse rotor/stator interface that prevents direct impingement of coolant and chips.

Lets address the IEEE motors and the relationship of bearing protection.
In 1994, IEEE recommended a practice of protecting bearings, which became a standard by the IEEE 841 committee and from that evolved the IEEE 841 motor specification. Their specification called for at least doubling the reliability of the electric motor, which doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch of the imagination. It is extremely easy for us to take an unprotected motor and retrofit it or have it manufactured as such with bearing protection and compare that at least double the reliability compared to a motor that has no effective bearing protection.

For a relatively small investment, the end user winds up picking up an IEEE motor?
Yes, he gains in efficiency and he also gains at least double the reliability. That motor will perform twice as long as previously projected. NEMA Premium motors with bearing protection are as reliable as the IEEE-841.

Today, every motor manufacture offers bearing protection, don’t they?
Absolutely, every single motor manufacture that I know of, even the ones made in Taiwan and Japan and so on are available with bearing protection.

Do you have the same situation with pumps?
Yes, all ANSI pumps and all API pumps are available with Bearing Isolators. Some carry Bearing Isolators as standard equipment, while others have developed premium pump lines around them. This growing list includes both vertical and horizontal pumps.

Will that be anyone that wants a motor repaired or remanufactured, the Inpro/Seal Bearing Isolator is an automatic on pumps?
Yes, pumps and most motors.

Significant orders over the last twenty years, would Grain Processing Company be one?
Yes, but they have become a very low volume customer because their need for new Bearing Isolators is pretty much over. I will go back and reiterate the point that once we retrofit a piece of equipment or it is supplied with Bearing Isolators it is off the market for us. We know that these are going to be out there in service for 15 to 20 years before they are brought down.

Do you have a guarantee with Bearing Isolators?
Yes, we are very unique in that respect. We guarantee not only the device itself but also its performance. If anybody is not satisfied with the performance of a Bearing Isolator made by Inpro/Seal, we will either, free of charge, upgrade or replace it or in some rare cases give them their money back.

Do you have cost justification data?
When an end user visits or they will find a wealth of free information, related to both Inpro/Seal and bearing protection, including:specific applications, case histories, data sheets, facts and questions, specifications and more.Interactive spreadsheets include a Cost Justification Worksheet, that quantifies the effectiveness of Bearing Isolators in rotating equipment and Contact Seal Energy Consumption Calculator.Simply to complete, an end user merely fills in the blank to calculate ROI and benchmark repair costs.We have sent out thousands of these by e-mail.

Back to the early years, you said you had four people. So do you think you have the entire United States covered or the globe covered?
Pretty much the globe. We are doing about 33% of our business outside of the US right now and our acceptance is growing.

Your original product was for pumps and then evolved into all kinds of rotating equipment?
Yes because I had my first engineering experience with pumps, I like many other people in the pump business thought that the world revolved around pumps. It took some stretch of faith to find out that other rotating equipment was just as valuable and in need of higher reliability.

Within the last two years I believe you have come out with a Bearing Isolator that you are calling the Air Mizer?
This is a great story.Frankly, some times our product may be too good.When you consider the fact that we make a product that never wears out, we really need a dynamic R & D department to fuel our growth.

The Air Mizer™ is a good example.It started out as a single product and is developing into a comprehensive product line.The first Air Mizer™ product was a shaft seal that evolved from our Bearing Isolator technology, modified for use with dry particulates, powders and bulk solids.Its unique design feature uses a solid wall of air that functions as a barrier for contamination and works to retain product where it should be – in the equipment.The highest levels of performance are assured by virtue of an inherent non-contact design feature that avoids direct egress of the particulate material.

Based on customer need, we then developed the Articulating Air Mizer™ which has the same features as the original and adds the ability to handle extreme shaft misalignment and deflection, common in these kinds of applications to provide a seal that traditional methods simply cannot attain.Using the latest in non-contacting technology, this adds an air purge that accepts radial and angular shaft runout up to ¼”.Shaft diameters from ½ in – 36 in. No other sealing mechanism can do this.

Shortly, (following patent protection) we will announce another product that has all the series features of the above and more.

What exactly do you mean when your say your R & D program is dynamic?
Anytime you have an operation that works around the clock. 24/7 to develop or enhance products, and takes customer need as its reason for being, backed by extensive field testing, trials and dedicated people, that is dynamic.

Beside the Air Mizer™, other recent developments include: a Motor Grounding Seal, an emerging technology that protects motors driven by variable frequency drives; a shaft sealing product line for powder applications; the only product available to keep stray mist from entering the environment in oil mist applications;a product that safeguards machine tool spindles; the only product design that can permanently protect rolling element bearings on paper machine rolls and more.

What do you mean by an emerging technology?
Actually, the trade journals referred to our Motor Grounding Seal as an emerging technology when they learned what it does.In this case, there is nothing else like it for use with VFD controlled AC motors.Here, the VFD generates residual current or shaft voltage that accumulates on the rotor and discharges(shaft to frame) through the motor bearing and damages the bearing. This random and frequent discharging is referred to as the EDM effect, which leads to prevents pitting, fluting and fusion craters on the bearing and ultimate failure.

The MGS Motor Grounding Seal permanently protects the motor bearings before damage can take place.It works by providing a “virtual short” between the shaft and motor frame to keep shaft current and voltage from building up.

What about other considerations?
Power is another good example.The best way to show this is to compare a contact seal vs. a non-contact seal.When engaged with a rotating shaft, a contact seal (lip, face) will consume, on average, 147 watts of power.A Bearing Isolator, on the other hand operates without contact and thus does not consume energy.

Each year some 400,000 Bearing Isolators are installed as contact seal replacements.Once you do the math, you will see that the savings are close to 600,000,000 watts.Or take a plant with 600 operating pumps that can save $117,000 just by replacing contacting with non-contacting technology.Interactive work sheets showing these examples of energy conservation are available on the Inpro/Seal web site.

Are you saying contact seals are obsolete?
In closing this interview, I will let you decide by leaving you with these thoughts.

The manufacturers of contact seals state that, at best, carry a median life cycle of 1,844 hours or 77 days.(Some may survive longer).Even spring loaded or magnetically loaded face seals and the highly touted double face magnetic seals have a 100% failure rate. When used with non-industrial equipment (auto wheel bearings, mowers, washing machines, tractors), this is acceptable.20,000 hours is a lifetime.

In the real world of continuous, heavy-duty industrial equipment, pumps and motors are designed for run uninterrupted for five years. Industrial grade bearings are rated for a much longer period of time.With contact seals, this equipment is doomed to fail and when it quits sealing it does so without warning.

Bearing Isolators, on the other hand, offer permanent bearing protection with a non-contacting seal that never wears out and be used over and over again for years to come.

After all, there must be a reason why there are well over two million Bearing Isolators with the Inpro/Seal brand in operation around the world today.